StateImpact
11:09 am
Fri May 18, 2012

New Hampshire Factories Struggle To Fill Jobs

Nationally, there are about 600,000 unfilled factory jobs.  But despite high unemployment, these jobs are proving all-but-impossible to fill, even in New Hampshire.  For one thing, most people don’t have the skills.  And many companies are handing over the training, and cost, of potential new workers to community colleges.  But that still doesn’t guarantee it will lead to new hires.

With 720 workers, GE Aviation in Hooksett is one of the largest employers in New Hampshire.  This factory is super-advanced, making parts for commercial planes, military fighter jets, and Blackhawk helicopters.  But it’s not the intricately machined parts that stand out when you wander the factory floor.  Instead, it is a sea of gray hair.

“Our average employee’s 51, with about 26 years of experience.”

Doug Folsom is the GE Plant Manager.  We’re touring the factory, stopping at Gary Wintle’s  station where he’s working on a machine with a big, yellow robotic arm. 

“Gary’s a good example of one of our future problems, in that you’re probably going to be retiring in the next 10 years…

"Easily!  Within the next five to seven years!”

And that’s the problem.  In the next year alone, Folsom is looking to hire at least 30 people to replace experienced workers like Wintle.  And the company knows it won’t be easy.

“You can train someone within a matter of weeks to push a button, but to be able to understand the data that’s involved with all of that equipment, to understand how to troubleshoot that equipment, it takes years.  And a lot of money for GE.  I mean, years of paying somebody $50,000 or $60,000 a year for them to pick that up.”

And who should pay for this training?  Beset with cost-cutting directives, companies have ended apprenticeship programs, which helped fill skills gaps.  Mark Dodge, who coordinates the machining program at Nashua Community College, understands the dilemma companies face. 

“The day of the company having apprentice programs…has kind of come and gone…Yes, we can save some money by not having our apprentice program now, but, in five or 10 years, where are we going to get people with that experience?”

That’s where the publicly-funded community colleges come in.  They have, at taxpayer expense, been the main source of training programs.

Dodge says—with some pride—that enrollment has been going up in these programs as word gets out about the demand for workers.  His machine shop program, for example, still mainly draws middle-aged men WITH some machining experience.  But there are a handful of fresh high school graduates as well, like 18-year old Mark Gallipeau. 

“It seems like there’s a  lot of open positions.  I'd just really like to get a job as soon as I get out, so…"

Last year, President Obama made manufacturing training—and employing people like Mark Gallipeau—a key part of his jobs initiative.  Last fall, New Hampshire’s Community College System got a $20 million federal grant to ramp-up advanced manufacturing training for students.  Chancellor Ross Gittell says it is shortsighted to complain about job training programs being funded by taxpayers. 

“If we don’t help these companies replace their incumbent workers, those baby boomers who are retiring, they’re going to have to relocate their manufacturing facilities to where those workers are available.”

But there is no guarantee that all this money and all this training will result in new hires. 

“I think it’s at the crux of what the debate is with workforce development right now, because the outcomes have been so dreadful.”

Dave Megenhardt is the Executive Director of United Labor Agency in Cleveland.  After more than 20 years of trying to hook-up workers with jobs, Megenhardt says a lot of community college partnerships with big companies often fail. His own agency’s job placement rate with these programs?  Thirty-percent.

“I think it’s very hard for a community college, even when it’s working directly with a business, to try and anticipate what the skill need will be in six months, a year…economies change, companies change, companies are bought and sold.  I think it’s very much like trying to shoot an arrow into a cloud."

Still, companies continue to need to fill job openings.  Take Albany Engineered Composites in Rochester, New Hampshire.  Spokesperson Susan Siegel says the company is expanding, and they need new workers as soon as possible.  And she remains convinced the Community College System’s new training program will do the job.

“We have a very aggressive ramp-up schedule to meet our customers’ needs.  We’re not going to meet those deadlines and meet that timetable if we’re just sitting and waiting for qualified candidates to happen to find us.”

That’s also not good enough for GE Aviation’s Doug Folsom.

“Unfortunately, the people that have the kind of skills we’re looking for, their age tends to be around, on average, 50 years old.”

Meanwhile, Folsom continues to fill jobs by luring middle-aged workers from other shops.  But that’s only for the short term.  GE’s corporate headquarters announced they are planning to start the Hooksett plant’s first-ever apprenticeship program, with the help of the Community College System.